My podcast examined the 1989 Virginia gubernatorial election of the Douglas Wilder.
Wilder’s election was historic: he became the first elected African American governor of any U.S. state in the 20th century. The Wilder victory, although historical, is important for a second reason. As the bulk of my podcast discusses, the Wilder gubernatorial election spurred the creation of a new political phenomena called the “Wilder effect.” In the “Wilder effect,” voters claim they will vote for a black candidate when they really don’t. Questioned by pollsters, voters are leery of being seen as racially prejudiced, so they lie about their voting intentions. In turn, this inflates the lead a candidate of color seems to hold before an election, causing pollsters to misjudge election outcomes.
Wilder ran against Republican J. Marshall Coleman. As the Virginia Elections Database reveals, the final election result was incredibly close and withstood a recount. The popular vote totals were 897,139 to 890,285. In percentage of vote totals, this translates into 50.14% to 49.75%.
Below is a chart from the US Election Atlas which shows the Virginia counties/districts won by Wilder or Coleman. Blue denotes counties/districts won by Wilder while red denotes those won by Coleman. Geographically, it appears Coleman won more of the state, but the larger population hubs, and accordingly vote share, allowed Wilder to overcome the loss of several smaller districts/counties.
Additionally, and perhaps more centrally to Wilder’s election, is the striking win of the block of blue districts/counties in southwestern Virginia. As Dr. Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics is quoted as saying in my podcast, Wilder was exceptionally and surprisingly successful in this region. Sabato’s analysis that Wilder fared better as a Democrat in southwest Virginia and Southside Virginia than the many recent Democratic candidates have done can be witnessed in this map.
In the above map created by Ali Zifan, Virginia’s largest cities are pinpointed. As Census data reveals, many of these cities and areas have racially and ethnically diverse populations, thus leaning Democrat in voter turnout. Comparing population and diversity on top of Douglas’s wins reveals exactly where he made nontraditional gains in his gubernatorial elections. Many researchers and politicians credit this success in rural or white areas in Virginia to his practice of retail politics, where he drove across the state, visited every city or district, and stayed in the homes of people he met while campaigning.
Wilder wound up narrowly winning Virginia. As my podcast discusses, given Virginia’s political and racial history, it is perhaps reasonable to anticipate a black candidate for statewide office may experience challenges in 1989. Wilder was the first candidate of color to run for statewide office as Lieutenant Governor. Just over twenty years before, Virginia—the headquarters of the Confederacy and state which profited from and heavily utilized slavery in prior centuries—had firmly rejected national and federal calls for racial integration. Virginia in the sixties clung tightly to policies of massive resistance and was the source of the infamous Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia.
The verdict is out on whether the “Wilder effect” is a useful concern for political scientists and voters. While some analysts have observed the two-time election of President Obama, along with the accurate spread of voter intention and actual voter selection, as evidence of the “Wilder effect” being exaggerated or unimportant, others are not as convinced. Some scholars have pointed to past gubernatorial elections in 1982 California and 2003 Louisiana. The latter loss, with Republican superstar Bobby Jindal, was an especially surprising loss for many pollsters who predicted he would win by as much as ten points. Here is a map from the Swing State Project documenting the Louisiana gubernatorial election:
Pollsters determined that the “Bubba Vote” undermined Jindal in the same way as the “Wilder effect” hurt Wilder in Virginia. In other words, rural white voters were unwilling to vote for minority candidate, but unwilling to admit this to pollsters. Different votes in the lilac and pink areas could have meant a different election result for Jindal.
According to AP reporter Summer Ballentine, in ten states since Reconstruction, only white candidates have won contests for president, senator, governor and other nonjudicial offices elected statewide. These states are (as of 2016) Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wyoming, Missouri, and Mississippi. It would be interesting to watch what happens if and when a nontraditional candidate runs for office in one of those states. Will the “Wilder effect” emerge again?
If you’re interested in learning more about the “Wilder effect” and related cases, check out these sources:
Barnes, Fred. “The Wilder Effect: Why Bobby Jindal Lost in Louisiana, Despite Being Ahead in the Polls.” The Weekly Standard. 17 November 2003.
Hopkins, Daniel J. “No More Wilder Effect, Never a Whitman Effect: When and Why Polls Mislead about Black and Female Candidates.” The Journal of Politics 71, No. 3 (July 2009): 769–781.
Kline, Reuben and Christopher T. Stout. “Racial Salience, Viability, and the Wilder Effect:Evaluating Polling Accuracy for Black Candidates.” Public Opinion Quarterly 79, No 4 (Winter 2015): 994-1014.
Kristof, Nicholas. “On the Ground Topic: The Wilder Effect.” The New York Times. 29 October
Payne, J. Gregory. “The Bradley Effect: Mediated Reality of Race and Politics in the 2008 Presidential Election.” American Behavioral Scientist 54, No. 4 (2010): 417-435.
Wilder on Racism and Politics
Wilder on Running for Governor of Virginia